Kabakov’s Moscow Conceptualism

The Kabakovs

Kabakov worked as a children’s book illustrator to make his work as an artist. Born in 1933, he was 50 years old when the Western artmarket fell in love with his work. He began to work with Emilia, his new wife, who is a trained concert pianist, in 1988.

When I became aware of the Kabakov’s work in the early 1990’s, I was already of the mind that the Russian film director Andre Tarkosfky was the most visionary filmmaker of the age. It was after being mesmerized by seeing the film Solaris based on a short story by Stanislav Lem, which caused this reaction in my psyche. Even after studying cinema history, Solaris was for me the one film which penetrated the depths of human consciousness and desires in a way like no other did in the theater of science fiction fantasy that questioned every hair on the head of his characters. Solaris showed how every person’s world is composed of unfulfilled desires and a contest between those desires and the requirements of the larger rational, scientifically constructed world, that itself is a projection generated by state control of the mind.

The Kabakov's House of Dreams (1995)

sketch for House of Dreams

In 2001,the art historian Michael Jesse Jackson wrote his article “Ilya Kabakov and the concentrated spectacle of Soviet Power” about Kabakov:
“Ilya Kabakov occupied an ambiguous position in Soviet society: he created “unofficial” art, yet by 1965, he had become a full member of the powerful Union of Soviet Artists. Without the approval of the Union, one had no legal right to be an artist.
Kabakov, however, was a well-employed children’s book illustrator, a government-approved, official artist. Unlike dissident cultural figures, such as the unofficial, “non-Union” painters Oskar Rabin and Anatolii Zverev, or nettlesome quasi-official artists such as the sculptor Ernst Neizvestny, Kabakov worked as a Union member for the state publishing houses, annually turning out multiple illustration jobs.” “I was not a dissident. I did not fight with anything or anybody. The word does not apply to me.”

Here it seems that Kabakov is saying that he was not a conflicted artist who was torn between his beliefs and his duties to the state. Yet then why does Kabakov make such pronounced commentary in his work about the failure of the Soviet empire? Especially when he was personally befitting from having a good state sanctioned position as a creative talent, whom himself had a real role in perpetuating the imaginary reality that the powers that be desired to project into the subconsciousness of the citizens at every level of the society.


"Ilya Kavakov -The Man who Flew into Space from His Apartment also raises questions of authorship in modernity. All of Kabakov's work is made in the name of other, fictitious artists. This reveals a hidden rule of the modern art system: only an artist who doesn't want to be an artist or who doesn't even know that he is an artist is a real artist—just as only an artwork that does not look like an artwork is a real artwork. The installation is a narrative, the documentation of a fictitious event." Boris Groys

In this work by Kabakov, a comparison can be made between the central character in Solaris, a Soviet scientist, Kelvin, who realizes he is being trapped by his desires on the planet Solaris, where he was sent to investigate the previous crew having gone mad. In Kabakov’s The Man Who Flew into space, it is evident that the man went insane in his apartment, constructed a gigantic slingshot, and hurled himself against the ceiling, creating a gigantic hole in the roof of his building. His fate can only be guessed at, see no blood, but it is likely that he has met his demise in realizing his fantasy.

“Ilya Kabakov, The Toilet, 1992. Stone, cement, wood, paint construction, men’s room, women’s room, household objects, furniture, Overall h. approx. 450 cm, w. 417cm, l. 1100cm. Installation, Documenta IX, Kassel, Germany. Image courtesy of Ilya and Emilia Kabakov.” For me this work also shares an affinity with Tarkofsky’s film  Solaris, in that the space ship Kelvin is on is functional but decrepit, just like Kabakov’s Toilet as apartment. Here representation of the real becomes the fantastic and unbelieveable.

In 1995 I was able to see Kabakov’s work at an exhibition for the first time, at the Rosamund Felsen gallery at Bergamot Station in Santa Monica, California, which was then the hottest new gallery cluster in Los Angeles. Kabakov created a series of framed paintings, where he then smashed the glass in the frames, to make it seems as if an insurrection had just happened that was a direct assault on the Social Realist style works. On the floor was a huge painting of clouds. This caused the room to seem to be upside down. There was also a lengthy phenomenally engaging fantastic text that one could read or not, but which enlivened the show into another dimension of engagement entirely. I recall seen feeling that this was one of the most powerful installations I had ever seen. I was especially impressed in that Kabakov had found the means to critque certain ways of being in the world by using both painting, found objects, and fabricated sculptures. I also saw the Kabakov’s work (the Empty Museum) at PS1 in Queens, and in Marfa, in 2007. The latter being an installation that mimicked a Russian grade school.

Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, Charles Rosenthal: In The Relative’s House, 1930-1998, object (wood), oil on canvas Size h: 154 x w: 245 x d: 4 cm / h: 60.63 x w: 96.46 x d: 1.57 in Markings signed and dated on reverse Description I. Kabakov as character: “Charles Rosenthal” (photo courtesy of: www.artnet.com)
Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, Charles Rosenthal: The Empty Painting, 1918-1998, oil on canvas Size h: 170 x w: 231 cm / h: 66.93 x w: 90.94 in Markings signed and dated on reverse Description I. Kabakov as character: “Charles Rosenthal” (photo courtesy of: www.artnet.com)
Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, Charles Rosenthal: Twelve Commentaries on Suprematism #6, 1926, At the new shop Work Date 1998, oil on canvas, Size h: 130 x w: 201.5 cm / h: 51.18 x w: 79.33 in Markings signed and dated on reverse Description I. Kabakov as character: “Charles Rosenthal” (photo courtesy of: www.artnet.com)

“Ilya Kabakov: There is not anything serious in it. The greatest problem of art today, is the problem of maximum seriousness. The artists look like prophets: they are puffed up, seem extremely important to themselves, and present themselves as if they were very serious. There is no sense of humour in all that and one cannot have a normal conversation with them. They are much more serious than we are. We prefer self-irony both in conversation with people, in relationships and in work, which is neither very serious nor totally playful, but is something in-between. Our installation What We Shall See After Death deals with death but there is nothing grave in it at all. What we shall see is what we shall see, there might not be anything serious in it. According to my very ironic predilection I assume that what we are going to see there is exactly what we are seeing here. That is landscapes which are very banal, regular planes. The only difference is the deformation of the perspective. But also this has to be taken with great sense of humour. What I can say about this installation is that it is very ironic, very light, and very pleasant. And that is what is most serious about it.”

“Ilya Kabakov: The fact that they could not understand proved that the type of mind which understands everything eagerly at certain level – and which for us is normal, because we are used to it – might not exist in some places at all. In order to understand this one needs to acknowledge that this problematic is connected to certain things: to the notion of intelligent mind and the difference in the notion of intelligentsia in Russia and in the West. Two hundreds years ago, the idea of education and enlightening was brought to Russia, found its realisation there and got popularised. In the 19th century Russia it was moving in two directions: towards science and towards humanities. The humanities were extremely important because it dealt with an image of the human being as the one who deserved this enlightening, deserved to be intelligent. An intelligent person was therefore standing out from generally uneducated society. In the 20th century, during the Bolshevik revolution and after it, intelligentsia became nearly completely eliminated. A difference between two totalitarian regimes is as follows: the Nazis completely eliminated intelligentsia, whereas the Soviets did not. According to the Nazis the German race was the best and nothing else seemed worth remembering or studying, whereas the Soviets thought differently. They were thinking they have to inherit and use international knowledge. In the Soviet Union there existed little islands amid all that dirt and darkness; islands of light and enlightenment: libraries, museum, conservatories, theatres, also art museum and the systems of self-education. Young intellectuals found themselves confined in this dark space but they believed they could find a tunnel of enlightenment, a connection to universal culture. There were a lot of groups of self-education, especially in Moscow. It was a confrontational movement to the power, but not a political one, because the political was useless. It was a culture of confrontation. It was a wish of an innocent girl not to go into a whorehouse. The reason I am talking about all this for such a long time is because it is a background for a circle of Moscow Conceptualists who partially grew out of this type of mind, this type of intelligent mind. Unfortunately, today this tradition disappears almost completely. And that is why we assume such a distanced position towards contemporary art contemporary Russia. Russia today is a totally destroyed place. That is it!”

as interviewed by Katarzyna Bojarska, September 2008

I have to ask here now – just what would Kabakov have to say about the cultural condition in the United States today? What does he think of America and the art being made in this country? What would he say to hearing that many, many American artists feel about America the way he does about Russia? I’ve also considered the otherworldly reception of Kabakov by the American art world audience. It is as if he is being rewarded for telling the tales of  just how horrible Russia is, to the delight of many Americans who like myself remember watching television in the 1960’s, of Russians standing in bread lines, of them going to stores with bare selves. Yet just a week ago I was in Northern California, in Berkeley, where were able to purchase chef grade food items, whose variety alone made us feel as if Los Angeles, where we live, is a third world country in terms of its supermarkets as compared to Berkeley Bowl in Berkeley, California.

Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, The Tennis Game

Kabakov's installation in Venice

The Kabakov's Venice Biennale contribution: "Kabakov: The origins of Eastern European installations lie in painting. … The Western installation is oriented toward the object… Eastern installation is oriented toward space… toward the atmosphere of a particular situation." "Beuys and Kienholz are like a pump with a huge amount of energy - you feel the ghost. It's the world that occurs after death. For us, the installation is the provocation of the memory, people come, but don't look at the object. The effect of the installation is very spontaneous, people come to remember, an activation takes place, as in music."

Despite these comments, it seems to me that Kabokov’s aim in this phenomenal work in Venice was not to stir one’s memory, but to cause in the mind a fantastic, dreamlike vision, whereby one directly experienced an art object as a form of astounding hallucination. This is of course using a lie to tell the truth, as Picasso would say.

"Ilya & Emilia Kabakov - The Tennis Game (Conversation between Ilya Kabakov - Boris Groys) 1999-2001, installation mixed media, 1200 x 2000 cm, exhibition view"

“Ilya & Emilia Kabakov – The Tennis Game (Conversation between Ilya Kabakov – Boris Groys)
1999-2001, installation mixed media, 1200 x 2000 cm, exhibition view”

All text for “The Tennis Game” is by GALLERIACONTINUA / Le Moulin, from their press release.

“The main work of art presented at Galleria Continua / Le Moulin is Tennis Game, A conversation between Ilya Kabakov and Boris Groys, which re-stages the medieval custom of a philosophical argument, a type of
intellectual tournament between two rivals. With a discussion of this kind, a preliminary subject was established and discussed by the two partners. The two rivals belonged to sides with different traditions and the joust was rich with abrupt movements. Here, a tennis court is surrounded by fourteen black paintings unwinding the thread of a conversation between the artist and Boris Groys: the sports game gives way to the dialectic and the sports ground
becomes the scene of a re-transcribed verbal joust. The match was played by Ilya Kabakov and Boris Groys.

The spectators can watch past action on television screens. True, the players don’t have the same level as Boris Becker or Marat Safin, but the principal after all, is to love the game. At the same time, the spectators can contemplate the result of another game, written on the black painting. The dialogues between the philosopher Boris Groys and the artist Ilya Kabakov are presented like five rounds of a tennis match in which a question is served and then followed by a return shot.

Before Tennis Game, there was a preliminary study: ‘Strangers in the Arctic’, a travelling group exhibition in which the Kabakov participated in 1996, like the classic position of two players. The subject of this exhibition serves as a structure for the installation. The theme of a ‘stranger on foreign territory’ is similar to the situation between two match opponents. What is the result of this match, who is the winner? Here, let’s quote he who resuscitated the tradition of the modern Olympic Games and pronounced the following words: “It is more important to participate than to win”. This is applied to the participants themselves. What is the position of the reader/observer in such a case? It is not so obvious and everyone must judge for themselves.”

This text description of the tennis game as intellectual game reminds me of Alain Robe-Grillet’s cinematic masterpiece Last Year in Marienbad, where the film’s key actors play out a simple yet highly intellectually challenging game by removing toothpicks from a container. The person who takes the last toothpick is the looser of the game. This installation also seems to be something that the William Forsythe dance company in Germany would deploy for one of their astonishing experimental theater works.

Kabakov painting with paper flowers attached

Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, The New Wallpaper, 2001 Oil and coloured paper on canvas 225 x 172 cm (88.6 x 67.7 in) (photo courtesy of: www.ropac.net)

One of Kabakov's Charles Rosenthal paintings

The Auction Painting,2000
From: Das Leben und Werk von Charles Rosenthal
Photo: © Emilia Kabakov
Courtesy Ilya & Emilia Kabakov and Sean Kelly Gallery, New York

“ILYA KABAKOV: Life and Creativity of Charles Rosenthal”

Kabakov's The Palace of Projects

The Palace of Projects, 1988
Photo: ©Emilia Kabakov
Courtesy Ilya & Emilia Kabakov and Sean Kelly Gallery, New York

The Kabakov’s

Russian children's School, Chinati Foundation, Marfa, Texas

The Kabakov's Russian children's School, Chinati Foundation, Marfa, Texas, with a portrait of Lenin. This was one of the most touching yet haunting installations I've ever encountered.

The Kabakov's Vertical Opera proposal for the Guggenheim

One of Kabakov's Charles Rosenthal's paintings, Cleveland Museum of Art, 2004

A book on Kabakov's Ten Characters

boris groys and kabakov

A book on the Kabakov's theatrical art

                                                                                                        (Courtesy of Ilya & Emilia Kabakov and Garage Center for Contemporary Culture. Moscow. Photo by Emilia Kabakov)“The Red Wagon was created and first exhibited in 1991 at the Kunsthalle in Düsseldorf and then at the Museum Angewandte Kunst, Vienna. It is now permanently installed at the Museum Wiesbaden. A second version of the installation was exhibited at The Garage Center for Contemporary Culture in Moscow during 2008 as part of the Kabakovs’ current international retrospective.The Red Wagon is a monument to Soviet reality and ideology, duly reflecting its attitudes and forms. The very context of The Red Wagon and its allusions and implications, make it look and sound political, almost journalistic. If it hadn’t been for the Soviet regime, one might note, the very installation would have been meaningless: it would have lost its message._A deeper look, however, reveals The Red Wagon’s roots in Russian philosophic and artistic discourse of the 20th century. One should compare it not to Stalin’s, Brezhnev’s and Andropov’s political legacy, but to Tatlin’s and Lissitzky’s artistic ones. Only The Red Wagon reverts the symbols to their opposite. The stairs, originally intended to lead to heaven, eventually lead nowhere. The wagon, designed to rush forward at high speed, lacks even wheels and is eternally static. The propaganda inside the wagon arouses nostalgia and longing for reversing time, instead of calling the spectator to the luminous horizons of the glorious future.”

The text is from the press release from the Consulate General of the Russian Federation

New York City

sketch for Red Wagon

The Kabakov's alternative history project on painting - using the fictional character Charles Rosenberg to created 60 paintings that question the history of Modernist painting.

Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, Three Paintings with the Black Spot, 2009, Size h: 200.75 x w: 309.38 in / h: 509.9 x w: 785.83 cm (photo courtesy of: www.artnet.com)
“Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, Title Three Paintings with the Black Spot, 2009, Size h: 200.75 x w: 309.38 in / h: 509.9 x w: 785.83 cm (photo courtesy of: www.artnet.com)
Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, Anna Lvovna Loeva: Whose Ladle is This?, 2001, object (metal), oil on canvas Size h: 112 x w: 152 x d: 22 cm / h: 44.09 x w: 59.84 x d: 8.66 in Markings signed and dated on reverse Description Part of the installation Not Everyone Will be Taken into the Future, 2001 Anna Lvovna Loeva: Whose Ladle is This? Ivan Glebovich Grach: I don’t know. Provenance Museum für Angewandte Kunst, Wien (photo courtesy of: www.artnet.com)
Ilya and Emilia Kabakov Gates. 2008
Vincent Johnson is an artist and writer in Los Angeles
Vincent Johnson in Los Angeles

Psychic Reader 18591 Sherman Way (Private collection, Los Angeles)


Biography July 2011
Vincent Johnson lives and works in Los Angeles. His work has been exhibited at Soho House, Los Angeles, Palihouse, West Los Angeles, Las Cienegas Projects, LAXART, the P.S. 1. Museum, the SK Stiftung, Cologne, the Santa Monica Museum of Art, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, the Studio Museum in Harlem, the Adamski Gallery of Contemporary Art, Aachen, Locust Projects, Miami, the Sacramento Center for Contemporary Art, 18th Street Arts, Santa Monica and the Boston University Art Gallery. His photographic works engage both significant and neglected historical and contemporary cultural artifacts and is based on intensive research of his subjects. Upcoming are projects in Europe and Los Angeles. He will also be participating in at least one Los Angeles art fair this coming fall.

Johnson received his MFA from Art Center College of Design in 1997 and his BFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.  He studied with Mike Kelly, Jack Goldstein, Stephen Prina, Liz Larner, Chris Williams, Mayo Thompson (formerly of Art&Language), and Liz Larner. He is a 2005 Creative Capital Grantee, and was nominated for the Baum: An Emerging American Photographer’s Award in 2004 and for the New Museum of Contemporary Arts Aldrich Art Award in 2007 and for the Art Matters grant in 2008, and in 2009 nominated for Foundation for Contemporary Art Fellowship, Los Angeles. In 2010 he was named a United States Artists project artist. His work has been reviewed in ArtForum, The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, Art in America and many other publications.


Vincent  Johnson Artist Statement

Vincent Johnson’s work is a form of sustained cultural mining that explores the depths of his subjects. His photographic works created from 2001-2007 delved into architecture as fantasy, from the vernacular architecture of Los Angeles to that found throughout the American West. He has documented several of the no longer extant commercial vernacular structures in both South Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley that came into existence during the birth of long distance family travel by car. In 2007 he presented a fully fabricated work of sculpture – a 12 foot long six-foot high replica of a 1956 Chrysler Air Raid Siren. This project developed as he was both researching and documenting a former military corridor in the San Fernando Valley that included a retired military airfield. His more recent photographic works, all created in 2008 and 2009, are large-scale photographic montages, each of which consider significant cultural figures and several dramatic signal events of Cold War era Western cultural history, including Television, the launch of Sputnik, the Soviet Space program, American home-based bomb shelter  program, and Vietnam. He is working on large-scale photomontages of the several major American political figures of 1960’s, including Martin Luther King, the Kennedy family, and Malcolm X, as well the representations of both Communism and Capitalism, Hollywood and Los Angeles and many related Cold War era subjects. Johnson’s photomontages can take several months to create as he captures hundreds of images from online sources, before selecting those which most well index a particular historical moment, personage or event. The creative juxtapositions and scale shifts of the found images is what he most relies on to develop his potent and illuminating photographic works.At to the end of 2010 he returned to his native city of Cleveland, to document some of its most distressed architecture. In 2011 he has returned to both photographically document Los Angeles and has expanded into Chicago. He is also in the process of creating a new body of abstract  paintings based on his ideas about architecture.

Soviet Space (2009) by Vincent Johnson (Private Collection, Los Angeles)

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